Saturday, October 9, 2010

October Pig Roast in La Caja China

Many years ago, my friend’s family used to hold an annual “Pig Pickin”. These were, crowded, boisterous, extravaganzas of partying and merriment that centered around a large pig cooked over an open fire, spit roasted for many hours until the guests were practically driven to madness with anticipation and hunger, that bordered on a scene from The Lord of the Flies (but in a good way).

I had always wanted to have my own Pig Fest but cooking a piece of meat that size, in that manner, takes significant resources and quite an investment in time. A hole must be dug for a fire pit plus the 2 cords of wood needed to maintain the fire; a spit must be erected to support 200lbs or more (my friend’s family used to get a half pig, split down the middle that weighed in at about 180 lbs); and the pig must be cooked from 8 to 12 hours depending on size and heat. Regulating the heat of a wood fire is something our pioneer ancestors were probably used to, but not a practiced skill for most home cooks. Oh, and don’t forget, unless you want leftover pig for the next 2 months, you need about 100 people to feed.

Then I heard about La Caja China. This is not an advertorial for La Caja China, and I will say the unit has some drawbacks, but it is a foolproof (practically) way of cooking a small pig, in a reasonable amount of time, with half the work a typical pig roast will take. It is not a replacement for cooking a very large piece of meat, but a suckling pig, up to 100 lbs could be accommodated in a large La Caja China.

La Caja China literally means Chinese box. I’m not sure how Chinese it is but it certainly is a box. It is a wooden box lined with aluminum, with a grease tray and rack and lid that covers the top that supports a large charcoal fire. The unit ships to you in pieces and must be assembled, but it is fairly easy to put together. There are several sizes, the Model #1 will roast a pig up to 70lbs, Model #2 will roast a pig up to 100 lbs and the Model #3 is a smaller grill for cooking a couple of pork shoulders, or 3 whole chickens (or I suppose any other combination of meat you can pack into it – and yes, it is odd how they numbered the models).

Last weekend we had a family celebration for October birthdays, a gathering of about 40 or 50 people. So it was the perfect opportunity to have a pig roast. This is was my 5th time using the unit as you do need the right occasion to roast a pig, even if it is “only” 70 lbs.

The preparation does take a little bit of work. The night before, you need to dress the pig. For me, this consists of a combination of brining and marinating. Instead of submerging the pig in a brine like you would do for a turkey, I use a large hypodermic needle and inject the pig with the brine, being careful not to tear the skin or puncture it too much. Then I coat the pig with a marinade of olive oil, vinegar, garlic, cilantro and spices. I keep the pig cool overnight in a 150 quart marine cooler (a necessary accessory to keep the pig cool after you pick it up until you’re ready to cook it.)

In the morning you attach the pig to a two-piece rack, one rack on top, one on the bottom, connect them with S-hooks and place the pig in the box and close the lid. Let the pig warm up to ambient temperature for about 20 minutes. Put about 15 lbs of charcoal on the top and when it ashes over, spread it evenly and start timing. The instructions say to add additional charcoal every hour, then once more after a half hour.

In about 4 hours the pig is basically cooked. I have never used a meat thermometer but I am going to go out on a limb here and say 160 degrees was certainly reached and surpassed judging by how hot this thing gets. But remember the double rack. You place the pig skin side down in the box when you first start. In order to get what we like to call in the trade “pig candy”, crispy, juicy, fatty pork skin, you need to flip the pig over so that the skin side is up and cook it for an additional 30 minutes or longer. While you’re initially cooking the pig, you should never open the lid, but when you’re cooking the skin, it’s ok to open the box and have a peek to see if it’s too your liking.

In the five times I’ve done this, the pig has come out tasting delicious. My picky kids even go back for seconds, but it is not foolproof. This time I did not attend the final cooking so the skin got a little overcooked. It was in no way ruined but it did mean a couple of pieces of pig candy had a burnt flavor. There was still plenty to go around.

The problem was compounded (or perhaps the cause) when flipping the pig over, the 2 sided rack actually broke. The welds gave out and while we were able to flip the pig, it was probably sitting closer to the fire than it should have been and the skin could not cook evenly. Perhaps this pig was a bit too fat for the rack, but still, it’s going to cost $50 to replace the part.

Another minor inconvenience is cleanup. There is a drip tray at the bottom of the grill, but be prepared for 2 to 3 quarts of pan drippings. There is really no easy way to clean that up. The tray is removable, but you will need an extra set of hands to get it out and do be careful not to spill.

Despite that, the meat was delicious and a good time was had by all. If you’ve ever thought about having a pig roast I can definitely recommend this method and would like to hear your experiences and recipes related to pig roasts.

Pig Roast Recipe and Instructions.


For the brine:

½ gallon water
13 oz. table salt
1 whole bulb of garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
8 oz orange juice
4 oz lemon or lime juice

For the dressing:

1 ½ cups olive oil
1 cup white vinegar
1 whole bulb of garlic
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ bunch of fresh cilantro
Kosher salt

To prepare pig:

1. Keep pig chilled at all times until about 1 hour before cooking
2. Pig should be brined and dressed the night before cooking
3. Mix together brine and let stand for at least ½ hour
4. Mix together dressing and let stand for at least 1 hour
5. Strain brine to remove any particles that might clog syringe
6. Reserve strained garlic and spices and combine with dressing
7. Fill syringe and inject pig with brine. It is best to try and inject the pig from the meat side and not the skin side. Avoid puncturing or cutting the skin before cooking. It is sometimes difficult to inject through the meat side. If so, carefully inject in the skin without creating large holes or tears.
8. Inject the pig all over every four inches until the brine is used up. Make sure to concentrate on the meaty parts, such as the ham (back legs) and shoulder (front legs).
9. Once pig is brined, apply dressing all over the pig on both the skin and meat side
10. Liberally sprinkle kosher salt all over entire pig, inside and out
11. Keep pig cool while it marinates over night

Once you're ready to cook the pig, attach the double sided rack and put it in the box. Close the cover, let it warm up for a bit then build your fire. Follow the instructions on La Caja China for when to add more charcoal.


Peter M said...

Eric, what a day to be part of...that roast pig looks delish!

bellini valli said...

Wouldn't we all love to attend one of these pig roasts Erik. I did attend one many years ago and it a memorable moment.

Bunny said...

wow!! I bet people are begging to come to your house for a pig roast!

polwig said...

Funny at first I thought you went travelling to China and had a pig roast in a town called La Caja (sounded more spanish then chinese but what do I know). That pig looks amazing and it seems like the box is pretty movable it had me dreaming of beach party with a pig roast instead of traditional clam bake... I must be missing summer already

Perry P. Perkins said...

That's a beautiful pig! FYI...La Caja China has released their first cookbook, "La Caja China Cooking" -